Friday, November 16, 2012

The Foundation of Moral Value

A member of the studio audience has, in effect, asked me to present the fundamental theory of value on which my writings and moral judgments are built.

So, do you think that we "ought to do" anything?

I want to start by saying that I went to college for 12 years studying fundamental theories of value (moral philosophy). Consequently, a great deal of work has gone into this answer. Though hard work is no guarantee of good results.

The answer is: It depends on exactly what you mean by "ought to do".

Do I believe that certain actions contain an intrinsic "ought-to-do-ness" (or "ought-not-to-do-ness") built into them by a god or nature?

The answeris: No.

There is nothing that we ought to do in this sense. No action has such a property.

However, there is another type of "ought" entity that is very real - the hypothetical ought ot "hypothetical imperative".

It works like this:

If you want to avoid the agony of severe pain, then you ought to keep your body out of hot fires.

For most of us, we want to avoid the pain of being burned, so we have reason to act (we ought to act) in ways that will avoid a state in which our bodies are exposed to hot flames. Avoiding hot flames is something each of us ought to do.

This ought only applies to those who have an aversion to the pains (or who have reason to avoid damage to body structions - prevent infections, maintain the use of limbs and sense organs, prevent disfigurement) that would be caused by burns. Certainly, it does not follow that a person with none of these interests has a reason to avoid hot flames.

For the rest of it, it further follows that we have reason to install smoke detectors in their homes and test them regularly. We ought to make sure that our houses are wired in such a way that the wiring will not spark a fire. We ought not to smoke when we might fall asleep. (We ought not to smoke for other reasons as well.)

It is quite possible (and, in fact, very common) that an agent might have a reason to avoid hot flames and, at the same time, a stronger reason to act that requires exposure to hot flames. A parent may have a child caught in a burning house. The aversion to having the child suffer harm may be stronger than the aversion to the pain of burns. These aversions would motivate the parent to find a way to save the child without getting burned. However, where there is no option, the "ought to avoid hot fires" gets overridden by "ought to run into the burning house and rescue the child".

These aversions to the pain of severe burns and desires to protect children from harm are very real. They are as real as plants and planets. We see them working all around us every time we see other people in action - or other intentional agents. Consequently, the "oughts" that spring from them are very real.

It is also the case that, while biology gives us a some strong interests, our interests are not fixed by nature. Some of them are learned by our interactions with the external world. We learn to like or dislike certain things.

I mentioned that the interest in avoiding the pain of burns implies an interest in making sure that the house is wired correctly. This, in turn, implies a set of standards for evaluating electricians. A good electrician is one that has those qualities that would tend to fulfill the desires people seek to have fulfilled when they call an electrician. For example, a good electrician will wire a house in such a way that would tend to avoid sparking a fire. This would combine with other qualities such as working efficiently, inexpensively, and and communicating well with the employer. These standards are not arbitrary - they are standards whereby a good electrician tends to do a better job fulfilling the desires of traditional electrician-seekers than a poor electrician.

This makes it possible for a community to speak intelligibly and intelligently about the qualities of different electricians (or smoke detectors). These are very real standards - and they are substantially independent of what any particular person may want or believe. It allows people to make statements about the quality of electricians and smoke detectors that are substantially true (or false).

In the same way that there are standards for good electricians and good smoke detectors, there are standards for good neighbors. Following the same formula, a good neighbor has those qualities that people generally have reason to want to find in a neighbor. A poor neighbor lacks those qualities.

A good neighbor is averse to wantonly doing harm or to disturbing others with noises that would thwart the interests others have in sleep or a restful time in the back yard. She is honest and kind. She watches over our property when we are away and watches over our children as they play. She will take action to secure our rescue if she looks out her window and discovers that you have gotten ourselves pinned underneath your car. To the degree that we are good neighbors we do the same for them.

From here we get standards such as "Neighbors ought not to lie, or to take without consent, or to commit murder." Good neighbors have aversions to these kinds of things.

The qualities that people generally have reason to seek in a neighbor is not up to personal whim. There is a fact of the matter as to which qualities tend to be pleasing or useful to others.

As I said above, some of these qualities are fixed by nature. Thus, it makes no sense to praise or condemn neighbors based on these qualities. On the other hand, some qualities are acquired based on experience. By controlling the experiences our neighbors have (particularly young neighbors or family members) we can influence the qualities that they acquire.

The tools that we have for this include praise and condemnation. We have reason to praise those qualities we have reason to promote - honesty, kindness, helpfulness. We have reason to condemn those qualities that we have reason to inhibit in our neighbors - such as an interest in wanton violence or a level of greed that makes one a threat to others.

In other words, we create an institution called "morality."

The standards of morality are not a matter of personal opinion. There is a fact of the matter regarding the qualities that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. There is a matter of fact as to what it makes sense for people generally to praise or condemn.

This answers the second question:

I do not understand how one could choose a logical desire under those conditions.

There are logical desires in terms of desires that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. There are no logical desires in terms of desires that have an intrinsic "ought-to-have-ness" or "ought-not-to-haveness". The first type of desire fully accounts for our moral institutions.

17 comments:

Jason T. said...

Consider the following claims:

(1) There are some natural features of the world that have intrinsic moral value. Such features include pain (which has negative value) and joy, properly understood (which has positive value).

(2) There are natural moral properties that are possessed by certain natural elements in the natural world. Such features include dignity, which is possessed by all persons, and justice, which is possessed by some states of affairs but not others.

Do you agree with either (1) or (2)? It may be too much to ask, but if you don't agree with either, can you explain the basis of your disagreement?

If you agree with either (1) or (2), would you agree that the existence of such properties entails the existence of obligations such as (3) one ought never act so as to violate another's dignity or (4) we ought to pursue the most most just arrangement of goods?

Anonymous said...

Speaking for myself, as someone very much influenced by Alonzo's writing, I absolutely reject both (1) and (2). On (1) there is no such thing as intrinsic value. Even if there was, it couldn't possibly provide a basis for morality.

Suppose that intrinsic value did exist and some scientists developed an intrinsic value detecting machine: a machine that goes 'beep beep beep' when it detects the presence of intrinsic value. Further suppose that these scientists discovered, using their machine, that a particular turnip was the most intrinsically valuable object in the observable universe and that your darling daughter, whom you love with all your heart, was totally worthless, having no intrinsic value at all. I put it to you that you would not be the least bit bothered to learn this. If a villain tied both the turnip and your daughter to separate train tracks, so far apart that you could not save both daughter and turnip from the oncoming trains, your decision would be an easy one.

Value is extrinsic, not intrinsic. If you value your daughter that is a fact about your desires, it is not a fact about your daughter. Your daughter isn't radiating particles of goodness and badness, nor would it matter if she was, unless for some reason you cared about intrinsic value (i.e. if intrinsic value happened to have extrinsic value, as well!)

A turnip could have all the intrinsic value in the universe but if it didn't also have extrinsic value - value to you - then it would all be for nothing. It wouldn't provide you with reasons for action and it could not - even in principle - provide a foundation for morality.

As for (2), again there are no such properties, again it wouldn't make any difference even if there were.

There desires that people have many and strong reasons to promote or discourage. It may be, for example, that we have many and strong reasons to promote a desire to uphold justice. It doesn't follow from that that justice is possessed of natural moral properties. It may be such that people will nearly always tend to have many and strong reasons to promote a desire to uphold justice but this would not imply that justice had any inherent value.

Jason T. said...

Wouldn't the fact that the scientists' value detecting machine identified the turnip as the most valuable object be conclusive evidence that the machine does not work?

So, there are such things as value detecting machines, and among these machines are humans. Granted, we are not perfect value detectors and some are worse than others; but that are we not perfect thermometers does not imply that we cannot detect temperature fluctuations. The reason it is obvious that the turnip cannot be of more value than my daughter is that you and I are decent enough value detectors that we can recognize that a turnip cannot have such value.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Alonzo -- I've written a related paper and I would be delighted if I could contact you offline about possibly reviewing it. But I don't have your email address. Can you please contact me so that I could email you a copy?

Regards,

Jeffery Jay Lowder

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous correctly identified my position as rejecting (1) and (2).

The relevant property of pain is that we are disposed to avoid it. Our brain is wired in such a way that pain signals generates avoidance behavior. It is a state of affairs (a particular arrangement of items) that we happen to be wired to prevent realizing.

A similar story can be told about joy - a particular arrangement of atoms that we are disposed to realize. It is one of several arrangements of atoms we are disposed to realize.

"Dignity" and "Justice" cannot even be defined as things in themselves. "Dignity," for example, represents a set of behavior that people generally have reason to dispose others to engage in. "Dignity" could be interpreted as requiring the killing of anybody who is disfigured or killing a woman who has been "despoiled" by rape. Determining where dignity can be found itself requires a prior moral judgment.

A "value detecting" sense organ would provide no help in understanding and explaining human behavior or any other real-world observations. Our actions are best understood as behavior that aims to fulfill the fullest and strongest of our desires given our beliefs. There is no need to postulate such an organ of value sensing to explain that behavior.

Furthermore, there is no viable theory of where this organ sits or how it works. We know how eyes work by responding to photons. We know the way that ears work by responding to sound waves. How does this value-organ work?

Finally, sensing intrinsic value from a turnip and not your daughter would not, in fact, prove that the intrinsic value detector is broken. The way we respond to things in the real world has been shaped by evolution. It may well be the case that turnips have a great deal of intrinsic value and your daughter has not. Yet, ancestors who responded appropriately to these properties died off - the result of saving turnips and allowing their children die. Thus, we evolved to be blind to these properties - to ignore the value of turnips and to respond instead as if there were value in the well-being of our children.

Once again, we actually do not need to postulate such properties to explain anything in the real world. We have simply evolved dispositions to realize states where realizing such a state contributed to the genetic replication of our biological ancestors.

Neither (1) nor (2) exist.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Regarding the following proposition:

(3) one ought never act so as to violate another's dignity.

I hold that this is false. In fact, I do not think there is anything that one ought never to do. Regardless of anything that is named, I can put it against a situation regarding so much death and suffering that it becomes more reasonable to avoid all of that death and suffering than to perform such an act.

I use the story of aliens coming to earth and telling a person, "You must torture this child; otherwise, we will cause even more severe pain and suffering and end the life of every man, woman, and child on the planet." The moral prohibition on torturing a child gets lifted against these types of alternatives.

However, I can defend a milder proposition. "One ought to be averse to violating another's dignity." An aversion can be overridden by other concerns - such as concern for every person on earth being subject to extreme pain. Yet, it is still applicable in the real-world day-to-day interactions people actually engage in.

To say that a person "ought to be averse to violating another's dignity" is simply say that people generally have reason to use social tools such as praise and condemnation (praising those who have such an aversion, condemning those who lack it) to promote such an aversion. They have reason to hold those who lack it with condempt and to condemn such persons, while praising and even rewarding those who demonstrate this quality.

(4) We ought to pursue the most just arrangement of goods.

This turns out to be true by definition. What is "the most just arrangement of goods?" Well, it is the arrangement that people generally have reason to promote the pursuit of.

There is a dispute over what counts as just here. In one example, a "just distribution" is whatever distribution that follows from practicing certain procedures (e.g., free-market principles). In another, it is that distribution where everybody has no more or no less than anybody else. Neither denies that a just distribution is what we ought to pursue. They quarrel over what qualifies as a just distribution.

This is because, "A just distribution is what we have reason to pursue" is true by definition.

Naturally, I agree that a just arrangement of goods is what we ought to pursue. However, I am more concerned with the question, "What counts as a just distribution of goods?"

Jason T. said...

Alonzo,
You say,
"It may well be the case that turnips have a great deal of intrinsic value and your daughter has not. "

You can't consistently maintain this and claim (as I think you do claim) that there are no objects that have intrinsic value.

About the possibility of value detectors. It is important to note that I did not say that humans have a value detecting organ, I said that humans are value detectors. We know this because humans (in general) tend to seek the good and avoid the bad.

And it is only true that we don't need to postulate moral properties in order to explain anything in the real world if it is true that there is no such properties as goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness (or other moral properties) and no such phenomenon as a person acting on the basis of recognizing such properties. I maintain that there are such properties and there is such phenomena. In order to show that we don't need the properties you would have to show that there are no such things.

David Evans said...

I think the turnip is a red herring. If it were replaced by the Mona Lisa (substitute any other object you believe to be of supreme value) the dilemma would be sharper.

But I think the machine raises too many questions. What made the scientists think that the property it measures actually is intrinsic value? How would they convince us that they are right, without appealing to our own (extrinsic) values?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

You can't consistently maintain this and claim (as I think you do claim) that there are no objects that have intrinsic value.

You are correct.

A more accurate way of stating the point is to say that, "Assuming that intrinsic value exists, the proposition that the value detector is defective does not follow from observation that it detects a great deal of intrinsic value in a turnip and none in your daughter."

Again, the reason that the conclusion does not follow from the premises in the light of such an assumption is because creatures that did not detect value correctly (that was blind to the goodness in the turnip and falsely perceived value in their own offspring) would be more fit.


About the possibility of value detectors. It is important to note that I did not say that humans have a value detecting organ, I said that humans are value detectors. We know this because humans (in general) tend to seek the good and avoid the bad.

You still need to provide some account of what this "value" is and how it works on the body so that it can be detected. If not through an organ, than how?

Furthermore, I deny that we "seek the good and avoid the bad". We "are disposed to seek that which it was evolutionarily useful for our ancestors to seek and are disposed to avoid that which it was evoluationary useful for our ancestors to avoid."

Furthermore, we evolved maleable brains by which what we seek and avoid is molded by interaction with the environment. This gives us the ability to learn through experience. However, that maleability is governed by the phenomena associated with positive and negative reinforcement, not by principles of "seek the good and avoid the bad". Anything that one person acquires a disposition to seek another can acquire a disposition to avoid depending on their individual experiences.


And it is only true that we don't need to postulate moral properties in order to explain anything in the real world if it is true that there is no such properties as goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness (or other moral properties) and no such phenomenon as a person acting on the basis of recognizing such properties.

This would be a question-begging assertion. I hold that it is possible to derive concepts of goodness and badness, rightness and wrongness, entirely by postulating relationships between states of affairs and desires.

One way of speaking would be to say that moral properties simply are relationships between malleable desires and other desires - which certainly do exist. However, relationships between malleable desires and other desires are not intrinsic properties. They are relational properties. Whether a particular desire is in such a relationship is contingent and dependent on the other (external) things in the relationship.

However, if we take the traditional account of moral properties as intrinsic out-to-doness or ought-not-to-doness, then I hold that we can provide accounts of good, bad, right, and wrong without postulating such properties.

Jason T. said...

One quick reply:

A more accurate way of stating the point is to say that, "Assuming that intrinsic value exists, the proposition that the value detector is defective does not follow from observation that it detects a great deal of intrinsic value in a turnip and none in your daughter."

Suppose someone created a whale detector and it consistently indicated that cucumbers were whales. This would be evidence that the detector does not work, not that cucumbers actually are whales.

Similarly, if a value detector indicated that a turnip has more value than a child, this would be proof that the detector is faulty.

I maintain that I am at least as certain that my daughter has more value than a turnip as I am that cucumbers are not whales.

Now, I am aware of skeptical arguments that claim that we cannot know that value exists, but I am also aware of similar arguments for the conclusion that we cannot know that whales exist. I see no reason to think that either argument should affect my understanding of metaphysical reality.

I will put my position in as stark of terms as I can: I know that children have more value than turnips. Thus value exists. That science cannot explain it is not a reason to doubt that value exists, it is a reason to recognize that science is limited (or at least that it cannot currently explain every fact about the universe, which isn't at all controversial).

Alonzo Fyfe said...

If your detector is telling you that cucumbers are whales, you have not invented a whale detector. You have invented a cucumber detector.

We know that the detector is defective because we have alternative ways of determining whether or not the item is a whale or a cucumbber.

But how, precisely, would you determine that the intrinsic value detector that says that there is value in a turnip is wrong?

Note that I am not a skeptic that says that we cannot know that value exists. Nor am I claiming that a turnip actually has more value than a child. I would deny both of these propositions.

However, if intrinsic values do exist, why can it not be the case that there is more value than a turnip?

I can explain why a child has more value than a turnip. It is because evolution disposed us to tend to be interested in the welfare of our children. Evolution favored brains that disposed those who had them to care for their children.

I do not need to postulate intrinic value or even value detection to get this result.

Similarly, some of our interests are learned through a process of positive and negative reinforcement as we interact with the environment. This gives us many of our likes and dislikes. It also gives us the ability to mold the desires of others by controlling the types of interactions they have with their environment (praising traits we have reason to reinforce and condemning those we have reason to inhibit).

It explains the types of foods we like, our desire for sex, the temperatures in which we are comfortable, our strong aversion to the smell of a rotting corpse. It also explains the fact of similar tastes within a culture and different tastes across different cultures (shared experiences and the positive reinforcement of cultural norms.)

However, the intrinsic value hypothesis runs into the problem of: How do we know that there is not more value in a turnip than in a child? Perhaps there is, but evolution has made us blind to this fact (because evolution worked against those who perceived the real value of a turnip).

PDH said...

(Didn't mean to sign in as 'Anonymous' before).

The point of the thought experiment was to consider what happens when intrinsic value and extrinsic value come into conflict. To illustrate this I provided an example in which something which ordinarily has a great deal of extrinsic value - our children - turns out not to have any intrinsic value and something which ordinarily has little extrinsic value turns out to be the most valuable object in the universe. What would we do in this situation?

This is a purely hypothetical situation, so it's cheating a bit, I think, to just say 'the value detection machine must be wrong.' I'm asking you to consider the scenario in which it is not wrong. If you prefer you could posit that God Himself came down from heaven and told you that the machine was indeed correct.

It can be no surprise that the things people generally consider to have intrinsic value just happen to be those things that we would expect to have high levels of extrinsic value to most people. This strongly suggests that people are making an unwarranted leap from 'I greatly value X' to 'X has great inherent value.'

And it seems clear to me that, for all practical purposes, extrinsic value would have to win out. If this is true then it doesn't matter if intrinsic value does not exist because it would play no role in moral reasoning. Intrinsic value is neither sufficient nor necessary for morality. I wouldn't care any more about the turnip on learning that it had so much intrinsic value, nor would I care any less about my daughter on learning that she had none.

As Alonzo points out, there are good evolutionary reasons behind the fact that humans typically value their offspring but that does not imply - and needn't - that our offspring have innate value. If there really is such a thing as intrinsic value, what are the odds that those things with the highest intrinsic value would just happen to be the same things that we ourselves have evolved to value?

Jason T. said...

If your detector is telling you that cucumbers are whales, you have not invented a whale detector. You have invented a cucumber detector.

We know that the detector is defective because we have alternative ways of determining whether or not the item is a whale or a cucumbber.

But how, precisely, would you determine that the intrinsic value detector that says that there is value in a turnip is wrong?


Similarly, if your value detector tells you that there is more value in a turnip than a child, you have invented a turnip detector not a value detector.

Of course we have independent means of determining whether or not something has moral value. That is why we know that the suggestion that a turnip has greater moral value than a human child is absurd. We know, just as an example, that being a subject of conscious states is relevant to whether something has moral value. (And one reason for this is that the capacity for consciousness is a requirement for the capacity of being the subject of states, such as pleasure and pain, that have intrinsic value). So, we know, on this basis, that if the detector indicates that something that is incapable of conscious experience (say, a turnip) has more value than something that is capable of conscious experience (a child), then the detector is not detecting value.

Jason T. said...

If there really is such a thing as intrinsic value, what are the odds that those things with the highest intrinsic value would just happen to be the same things that we ourselves have evolved to value?

I don't know. How would you calculate something like that?

But I don't think that there is any reason to suspect that the odds would be low. After all, if seeking the good increases an organisms probability of leaving offspring, then we should expect seeking the good to be an evolved behavior. And there is no reason to think that an organism that seeks the good won't be successful.

Furthermore, there is no reason to think that everything that we value has intrinsic value. But that some of the things that we value have intrinsic value seems like a reasonable hypothesis, to say the least.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jason T

Of course we have independent means of determining whether or not something has moral value. That is why we know that the suggestion that a turnip has greater moral value than a human child is absurd.

No. What I know is that humans are strongly disposed to value the well-being of their children. I can explain this by the fact that genetic factors leading to a brain organized so as to produce this type of behavior survived abd replicated while alternative brain structures in primates tended to die out.

I do not know that a child has more intrinsic value than a turnup. In fact, I would claim to know that they have the same intrinsic value - none.

How do you know that the child has intrinsic value, and not the turnip? If your claim is that it s because huans are disposed to seek the well-being of children - that shows nothing. I have already explained that fact in simpler terms.

You denied that we have an organ for detecting intrinsic value. I say,"Of course not. We cannot detect what does not exist."

But, furthermore, if we do not have such an organ, what DO we have? How does it work? Can I build an artificial valuometer? How would it work? If somebody suffered from impaired value detection, what type of therapy would you prescribe? How could you even determine that it was his value detection that was impaired?

What can yu tell me about how it works? How did it come into existence?l

The evolutionary story not only explains our beavior, but creates useful counter-factuals. If we came upon another species, do you think that it would see intrisic value in the well-being of a human child? Or should we predict an evolved disposition to care about their own children? Would its tastes be better explained by looking at their evolutionary hstory? Or by intrinsic value properties?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

There is one interpretation of my previous comment that I would like to warn again.

I do not think that morality is "an evolved disposition to value".

Instead, morality concerns learned dispositions. Our evolved aversion to pain and desire for the well-being of our children, combined with the fact that dispositions to behave are influenced by environmental factors, gives us reason to create an environment in which others learn to disapprove of behavior that causes pain or harms their children.

Rewards such as praise, and punishments such as condemnation, are among the tools we use to teach these values to others - and among the tools they use to influence our own values.

Morality is entirely concerned with the use of social tools to molding malleable (learned) desires. Nothing is morally right or wrong merely because we have evolved a disposition to approve or disapprove of it.

robin said...

I am a former Atheist and am interfacing with another person of my former persuasion at the moment. It's been very stimulating. Anyway, as a result of my interactions with this person, I am asking a question on my latest post that I would like other Atheists to look at. I'm not getting many responses so I thought I'd request some.